Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University


On Monday June 15, KJSL, a Christian radio station in St. Louis, MO, invited Dale Ratzlaff and myself to present and discuss our respective views regarding the Sabbath/Sunday question. Dale Ratzlaff has served as a Seventh-day Adventist Bible teacher and pastor, before leaving the Adventist church on account of doctrinal differences. Several months of Bible study convinced Ratzlaff that the Sabbath is not a creational institution for mankind, but a Mosaic ordinance for the Jews. Christians, according to Ratzlaff do not need to observe the Sabbath, because Christ fulfilled its typological function by becoming our salvation rest.

Ratzlaff has published his views in a 345 pages book entitled THE SABBATH IN CRISIS. I was invited to debate Ratzlaff by KJSL because of the three volumes I have authored on this subject, including my doctoral dissertation FROM SABBATH TO SUNDAY, originally published by the Pontifical Gregorian University Press with the official Catholic imprimatur.

The limitation of time, considerably reduced by numerous advertisements, did not make it possible during the debate to address important issues in a substantive way. Thus, we have agreed to continue our dialogue first through the internet and then at a Sabbath Conference tentatively set for October 10, at the St. Louis Central SDA church.

The format of the internet debate is rather simple. I will present in installments my analysis of Ratzlaff's arguments to which he will respond as time allows. I have promised to post his responses on all the discussion groups to which I subscribe. Since both of us have busy schedules, there might be some delay between exchanges. Personally I will be out of town from June 20 to 27 to meet speaking engagements. This may cause a delay in my posting of Ratzlaff's response.



In this first installment I wish to address the question of the nature of the Sabbath, because both in His book THE SABBATH IN CRISIS and in his radio debate, Ratzlaff argues that the Sabbath is not a creational/moral institution for mankind, but a ceremonial/Old Covenant ordinance given to the Jews. Christians no longer need to observe the Sabbath, because Christ fulfilled its typological function by becoming our Sabbath rest. Ratzlaff's denial of the creational and universal nature of the Sabbath is based on three major arguments discussed especially in chapter 2 of THE SABBATH IN CRISIS. In this first installment I will examine these arguments. The page references given in parenthesis are from the 1990 edition of his book.



The omission in the creation account of "the evening and the morning" in connection with the seventh day indicates that the Sabbath is not a literal 24-hour day like the preceding six days, but a symbolic time representing eternal rest. "The Genesis account does not mention an end to God's seventh-day rest. Rather it is presented as an ongoing state by the omission of the formula 'and there was evening and morning, a seventh day" (p. 24). "Therefore we can conclude that the conditions and characteristics of that first seventh day were designed by God to continue and would have continued had it not been for the sin of Adam and Eve" (p. 22).



"There is no mention of the word 'Sabbath' in the Genesis account" (p. 21). This omission indicates that the Sabbath as a day to be observed originated not at creation but later at the time of Moses.



"There is no command for mankind to rest in the Genesis account" (p. 25). "Nothing is expressly mentioned regarding man in the seventh-day-creation rest" (p. 26). This indicates that the Sabbath is not a creation ordinance binding upon mankind, but a temporary institution introduced by Moses for Israel alone.



Both Rabbis and Christian writers have interpreted the absence of any reference to "the evening and morning" in connection with the seventh day of creation as representing the eternal rest of God which will be ultimately experienced by the redeemed. Augustine offers a most fitting example of this interpretation in the last page of his Confessions, where he offers this exquisite prayer: "O Lord God, grant Thy peace unto us . . . the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath which has no evening. For all this most beautiful order of things, 'very good' . . . is to pass away, for in them there was morning and evening. But the seventh day is without any evening, nor hath it any setting, because Thou hast sanctified it to an everlasting continuance; . . . that we also after our works . . . may repose in Thee also in the Sabbath of eternal life."

This spiritual, eschatological interpretation of the creation Sabbath has some merits, because, as shown in my two books DIVINE REST FOR HUMAN RESTLESSNESS and THE SABBATH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, the vision of the peace, rest, and prosperity of the first Sabbath inspired the prophetic vision of the peace, delight, and prosperity of the world-to-come. This interpretation is also found in Hebrews 4 where believers are urged to strive to enter into the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God (vv. 9, 11).

The symbolic interpretation of the creation-seventh-day which has no evening, does not negate its literal 24-hour duration, for at least four reasons:

First, the seventh day is enumerated like the preceding six days. Note that in the Bible whenever "day-yom" is accompanied by a number it always means a day of 24 hours. When "day-yom" is used in a figurative way such as "the day of trouble" (Ps 20:1) or "the day of salvation" (Is 49:8), it is never accompanied by a number.

Second, the Decalogue itself clearly states that God, having worked six days, rested on the seventh day of creation week (Ex 20:11). If the first six days were ordinary earthly days, we have reasons to understand the seventh in the same way.

Third, every passage which mentions the creation-seventh-day as the basis of the earthly Sabbath regards it as an ordinary day (Ex 20:11; 31:17; cf. Mark 2:27; Heb 4:4), and not as a symbol of eternal rest.

Last, the commandment to keep the Sabbath as a memorial day of the creation-Sabbath (Ex 20:11) implies a literal original 24-hour Sabbath. God could hardly command His creatures to work six days and rest on the seventh after His example, if the seventh day was not a literal day.



It is true that the name "Sabbath" does not occur in Genesis 2:2-3, but the cognate verbal form shabat-rested (to cease, to stop) is used and the latter contains an allusion to the name 'the Sabbath day."

Moreover, as Cassuto sagaciously remarks, the use of the number "seventh" day rather than the name "Sabbath" may well reflect the writer's concern to underline the perpetual order of the day, independent and free from any association with astrological "sabbaths" of the heathen nations.

It is a known fact that the term shabbatu, which is strikingly similar to the Hebrew word for Sabbath (shabbat), occurs in the documents of ancient Mesopotamia. The term apparently designated the fifteenth day of the month, that is, the day of the full moon. By designating the day by number rather than by name, Genesis seems to emphasize that God's Sabbath day is not like that of heathen nations, connected with the phases of the moon. Rather it shall be the seventh day in perpetual order, independent from any association with the cycles of heavenly bodies.

By pointing to a perpetual order, the seventh day strengthens the cosmological message of the creation story, precisely that God is both Creator and constant controller of this cosmos. In Exodus, however, where the seventh day is given in the context of the genesis not of this cosmos but of the nation of Israel, the day is explicitly designated "sabbath," apparently to express its new historical and soteriological function.



There is no command to keep the Sabbath in Genesis 2:2-3 most likely because Genesis is not a book of commands but of origins. None of the Ten Commandments are ever mentioned in Genesis, yet we know that their principles were known because we are told, for example: "Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen 26:5).

Another reason for the absence of a command to keep the Sabbath in Genesis, is the cosmological function of the Sabbath in the creation story. It tells us how God felt about His creation. It was "very good" so He "stopped-shabat" to celebrate the goodness of His creation. In Exodus, however, the function of the Sabbath is anthropological. It invites mankind to celebrate God's perfect creation by following His example. Note that in Genesis the God's Sabbath rest is a rest of CESSATION-SHABAT, because is meant to dramatize how God felt about His creation: it was perfect, so He stopped. In Exodus, however, the Sabbath rest of God is a rest of RELAXATION-NUAH (Ex 20:11), because it serves as model for human rest.

The fact that the Sabbath is established in the creation story by a divine example rather than by a divine commandment for mankind, could also reflect what God intended the sabbath to be in a sinless world, namely, not an alienating imposition but a free response to a gracious Creator. By freely choosing to make himself available to his Creator on the Sabbath, man was to experience physical, mental, and spiritual renewal and enrichment. Since these needs have not been eliminated but heightened by the Fall, the moral, universal, and perpetual functions of the Sabbath precept were repeated later in the form of a commandment.

The argument that the Sabbath originated at Sinai makes Moses guilty of distortion of truth or, at least, a victim of gross misunderstanding. He would have traced back the Sabbath to creation when in reality it was his own new creation. Such a charge, if true, would cast serious doubts on the integrity and/or reliability of anything else Moses or anyone else wrote in the Bible.

What is it that makes any divine precept moral and universal? Do we not regard a law moral when it reflects God's nature? Could God have given any stronger revelation of the moral nature of the Sabbath than by making it a rule of His divine conduct? Is a principle established by divine example less binding than one enunciated by a divine command? Do not actions speak louder than words?

In the next installment I will examine Ratzlaff's argument that the Sabbath is part of the Old Covenant that terminated at the Cross. If you are reading this post in a discussion group and wish to be sure not to miss the forthcoming exchanges, send me your email address at: I will place your name in a special mailing list.

If you wish to receive a tape of THE SABBATH DEBATE broadcasted last June 15 on THE KJSL radio station, simply send $4.00, postpaid to: BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES, 4990 Appian Way, Berrien Springs, MI 49103. Your order will be processed on the same day it will be received.

Christian regards

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
Professor of Theology and Church History, Andrews University